Decision to admit Syrian refugees reflects Christian imperative

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The announcement by the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, to accept and permanently resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees coincided, to the day, with the official launch of the Social Justice Statement for 2015-2016, For Those Who’ve Come Across The Seas: Justice For Refugees And Asylum Seekers.

This was not political opportunism, but rather a just and compassionate response to the humanitarian crisis.

As some European nations faltered, Australia embraced its international responsibilities. Australia’s response has numerically outstripped that of most nations, including the United States, which announced a special intake of 10,000. The US is a nation with 320 million people. Our response falls well short, however, when compared with Syria’s neighbours; Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

A Syrian refugee arrives at the Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq, near Amman, on 10 September. Photo: Muhammad Hamed, Reuters
A Syrian refugee arrives at the Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq, near Amman, on 10 September. Photo: Muhammad Hamed, Reuters

While this decision had bipartisan political support, the issue of Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers has long divided Australian society and it has been a lightning rod for divergent social views. It is within this context of divided public opinion that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, through its statement, has sought to inform the public debate and reorient the moral compass of our society.

Throughout our nation’s history Australian governments have responded to a number of refugee crises. Their approach has not always been consistent, nor has there been a consistency in the attitudes of the wider community. In his book, Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees – A History, historian Klaus Neumann provides a compelling overview of the issue, which has been a political hot-topic for the past decade.

All too often Australians have presumed that the ‘tyranny of distance’ that separates us from much of the rest of the world will cocoon us from the world’s problems.

For some, this distance also abrogates their sense of international responsibility.

In reality, we do live in a global village, not just as a result of the ubiquitous presence of technology, but as a result of our concern and responsibility for ‘our neighbour’.

This is especially true for Christians. An empathy with and concern for our neighbour lies at the heart of our faith, it is a Christian imperative.

The importance of our relationship with our neighbour, and our love for them, is beautifully articulated by the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas affirms the significance of our encounter with the ‘Other’. His philosophy is highly applicable to Christian theology and a Christian worldview.

The philosophy of the ‘Other’ calls us from an inward pre-occupation and self-absorption to a life in which we are sensitive to our neighbor and empathetic to their wounds and vulnerabilities. We are called out of indifference and into a personal responsibility for the ‘Other’, especially those at the margins.

This was a salient theme of Pope Francis’ exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The pope warned: “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others.” The pope’s concern is not new or isolated. Rather, it characterises the Church’s longstanding social teaching.

In Gaudium et Spes we read: “the joys and the hopes and the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

UNDA academic Glenn Morrison has suggested “if we are to love the poor one and [see and] hear the word of God in their face, then there must occur a certain transformation. The ‘Other’ is not an object … or an interesting piece of knowledge … it is the face of the Other, the very poor one, that must shatter our self-interest.”

For vested self-interest to be displaced and for us to feel compassion we must see the face of the “Other”, and in that, we must see a human face like our own, fashioned in God’s image and likeness. Furthermore, we must also be mindful of the virulent dangers of ‘dehumanisation’.

It should come as no surprise that the erosion or denial of human rights and the wanton oppression or persecution of a particular group of people feeds off processes of dehumanisation. We treat people differently, sometimes vilifying them, simply because we fail to see the face of the ‘Other’, and we fail to recognise and accept our responsibility to and for them.

There will be times of course when graphic images jolt us into reality and make us acutely, and sometimes painfully aware of the ‘Other’, and their suffering.

In recent years, most Australians have formed a view on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers, especially within the Australian context. For many, their position will have been influenced by their religious or political affiliations, or by the media’s coverage. The influence of the media sometimes rests, not on the power of its arguments, but its images. The cliché, ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’, is certainly true.

While Australians will have heard many of the statistics and counter-arguments about refugees and asylum seekers, and will have viewed a range of images of refugees, either as ‘boat people’ or in detention centres, the poignant image of a little three-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi*, washed up on a beach, may well have led them to see this issue with fresh eyes, and, perhaps for the very first time, see the face of the ‘Other’ in those who seek refuge and asylum.

In death, Aylan Kurdi has given a face to refugees and asylum seekers around the world, and has helped shatter our self-interest and move us to compassion. The images of this child’s lifeless body challenged the world’s leaders to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Within days the Federal government responded, announcing that 12,000 Syrian refugees would be accepted for permanent resettlement. As new Australians they will soon become familiar with our national anthem, some lines of which apply directly to them – “for those who’ve come across the seas”.

Our anthem goes on to present a challenge to all Australians in how we welcome and embrace those from ‘across the seas’, calling us to share our resources, unite harmoniously as a society, and contribute to the development of our nation.
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.

*The Express newspaper in London was one of several media outlets to report later that Aylan Kurdi was not a Syrian refugee but had been living with his family in Turkey and that his father, a people smuggler, was driving the boat when it capsized, killing Aylan, his five-year-old brother and his mother.